When I was a kid, I was fascinated with Friday the 13th. Specifically, I was fascinated with its central character, Jason Voorhees (unless you’re talking about the first movie, where Jason only appears right at the end). There wasn’t much to it. I was but a boy and thought that the hockey mask and machete combo was just rad as hell. The thing is, I wasn’t actually allowed to watch those movies while I had that little obsession. I just saw the movies in video stores, read the descriptions, looked at the pictures and thought to my little self, “this guy looks super awesome.” It wouldn’t be until several years later that I actually watched the movies and found out that they simply weren’t very good. I almost felt cheated. I had built up a rockin’ headcanon as to what this character would be like, and it turned out that he just kind of lumbered around and killed anyone who had the audacity to engage in promiscuous teenage sex. But, dear reader, this is the catch: I would not have seen as many of those movies as I ultimately did at all were it not for the character they featured catching my attention all those years ago.
These days, though? Find me a Jason Voorhees, or a Freddy Kreuger, or a Michael Myers. Hell, find me a goddamn Leprechaun, Chucky, or Pinhead for that matter. I’ve got you stumped, haven’t I? The only thing I can think of that even comes close is Ghostface, from the Scream franchise, and even he doesn’t really qualify since that’s simply the name of the costume used by assorted characters throughout the movies, as opposed to the name of a single entity. Our horror movies simply don’t have iconic characters anymore. We have (as I’ve complained about before) found footage and torture porn, which have given us simply generic ghosts, demons, and witches (or xenophobia, in the case of the TP genre). We’ve even tried recycling the iconic killers of the past with reboots of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, throwing killers at the wall and hoping something re-sticks, but to no avail.
So what has happened exactly? Why has horror suddenly decided that vaguer is better when it comes to the big bad? Well, much like my theory about boobs, I have a well-reasoned (if less-researched) two-pronged hypothesis:
Prong the first ties into what I will delicately call “the total pussification of horror tropes”. See, straight horror is becoming rarer and rarer these days. But (purely anecdotally), I’ve noticed that the horror-comedy genre is getting a big boost lately. The most recent example would be The Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, but Zombieland, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies spring immediately to mind as well. These films take the things that were once used to scare us, and by way of putting silly hats on everything, nullify any fear potential. The problem is that making a lasting comedy is hard, as a lot of what has come out in that genre recently is a sequence of funny, yet ultimately forgettable jokes. So why bother crafting a baddy when you can simply make a bunch of zombies (or whatever) and have that provide the backdrop for your jokes, since you know your film won’t have staying power anyway?
A subset of this grand theory of pussification would be the supernatural romance genre. We’re not going to touch that. I know it’s garbage, you know it’s garbage, even my mom knows it’s garbage. Our favorite monsters get symbolically defanged so that they can fight over whatever dead-eyed Mary Sue is in play that week. They don’t count as icons, and I will not entertain the idea further.
Prong the second of my theory ties a little bit back into what I was talking about when I was exhausting my supply of mammary related euphemisms. Our films reflect what we fear, and as our access to information increased, what we fear changed substantially. Back in the 80’s, most people’s fears were tied in to what directly affected them. We weren’t scared of the far reaching problem of pedophilia and the nature of the world we live in that allows it to persist, but you bet your sweet ass that we were scared of the guy who lived down the block who owned a windowless van. Hell, even in the late 90’s, we weren’t nearly as frightened of the mere concept of gun-violence, but we absolutely went out of our way to avoid the (completely harmless) kid who wore a black trenchcoat all the time and listened exclusively to Marilyn Manson. But with the domination of the 24 hour news cycle and the click-fueled economy of internet news sources, we have a level of perspective into so many real life horrors that is unprecedented. Now we look at the things in the world that scare us, and (unless you’re a reductive jackass) we know that there are huge, nebulous, complicated factors that create the things that we fear like terrorists, pedophiles, and Kardashians. So when a screenwriter comes up with an idea for a spooky-scary, they go with the nebulous unknown because currently, that is what we’re scared of.
Again, this is pure speculation on my part in an attempt to understand why rad-bads are a thing of the past. Feel free to share your own hypotheses amongst each other. And filmmakers, please take note: we want memorable nemeses in our movies. Make them shits happen!